WHEN it comes to improving the performance of the railway, investment in physical assets through renewals and enhancements is key to delivering more capacity and greater reliability. But alongside construction-based enhancements, technology has a key role to play in optimising rail operations and ensuring infrastructure is used to its full potential.

Britain’s Digital Railway programme seeks to harness technological advances to make capacity enhancement a more cost-efficient process - a priority when infrastructure costs need to fall and the continued availability of current levels of funding looks unlikely. According to the programme’s business case, the capacity needed on the British network can only be delivered by “complementing targeted upgrades with digital innovation that makes the infrastrucutre we have significantly more effective.”

Digital Railway has three key aims:

  •  to be a powerful driver for productivity and growth
  •  a railway built, maintained and run at lower cost, and
  • improving the customer experience.

The programme is being coordinated by governing bodies and industry leaders. Its advisory board consists of: the Department for Transport (DfT), Network Rail, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), Crossrail, Transport for London (TfL), the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the Rail Supply Group (RSG), and Arriva. The board’s role includes assisting in decision-making on costs and benefits, and identifying options for programme funding and management.

Britain’s digital railway strategy seeks to optimise operations by integrating key systems. By combining the European Train Control System (ETCS), Traffic Management (TM), telecoms data, Automatic Train Operation (ATO), and Connected Driver Advisory Systems (CDAC), the Digital Railway offers the prospect of huge improvements in capacity, performance and safety.

Mr Mark Ferrer, operations director of digital railway at Siemens, and Railway Industry Association (RIA) technical director, Mr David Clarke, both focussed on the potential benefits of the programme in their presentations at last month’s Railtex exhibition in Birmingham.

Ferrer highlights the rollout of ERTMS, which will reduce and ultimately eliminate the need for lineside signalling, as an example of how technology can make rail more efficient. “We can reduce the amount of infrastructure we have by providing a digital technology which can transmit information to the train,” he says.

Both speakers also stressed that the industry will only realise the benefits of this innovation by investing in skills and helping the workforce to adapt. “Innovation is not just about technology, it is about people and processes,” says Clarke. This refers not only to those who will be directly affected such as train drivers, but also to the engineers and technicians who will work with the data to make physical upgrades and repairs. In order for the data to be properly used, it will be vital to obtain a deep understanding of the analytics that will play an ever-greater role in monitoring the railway.

Operating scenarios

The Digital Railway is an interesting prospect for a number of reasons. With vast quantities of historic data, it will become easier to digitally generate projections of future operating scenarios, enabling operators to improve facilities and customer experience, as well as prepare their staff for any potential maintenance issues that may arise. Ferrer says it can be utilised as a connected driver advisory system, allowing data to tell the driver when to accelerate harder or brake earlier.

“The Digital Railway should increase capacity on the network, it should reduce the costs of employment, and it should improve reliability of the infrastructure,” Ferrer says.
Ferrer highlighted the recent launch of its digital rail service business in the United States, which uses sensors and software platforms to put intelligence behind billions of data points created on the country’s rail network. It is hoped that the new software will help to reduce unplanned downtime while generating energy and cost savings.

Charlotte Area Transit System is working with Siemens on a pilot programme for real-time diagnostics and analysis of light rail system data to assist with maintenance recommendations. The services that Siemens aims to offer are based on a cloud-based data analytics platform.

After the recent cyber attacks across the globe, security will be an important focus for Siemens. “Cyber security is one of the developing necessities in the rail industry,” Ferrer says. He went on to explain that the digital railway will meet all of the cyber security demands and that Siemens is aware of the problems that will arise, as well as the benefits.

While the Digital Railway will need a significant up-front investment, there is potential for long-term operational cost savings. The industry needs innovation if it is going to compete with other modes of transport, which will also be transformed by automation and digitalisation. And the Digital Railway is a much-needed step towards ensuring rail remains competitive.